Women in STEM to boost Knowledge Economy

05 Aug 2022

As we stand on the brink of an Industrial Revolution, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are critical for accelerating technology-led economic growth and, consequently, India’s future development. STEM is the powerhouse to drive innovation across disciplines and find creative ways to solve big and small challenges.

STEM is also the catalyst for accelerating world growth, yet struggling with gender inequality due to the underrepresentation of women in STEM. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is not the exclusive domain of any gender. It’s everyone’s game.

While women make up about 47% of the total workforce, they are statistically under-represented in STEM, with less than 30% of the world’s researchers being women. Women and girls represent half of the world’s population and, therefore, also half of its potential. So, empowering girls and women to enter STEM fields of study and careers, and stay the course, is imperative. The under-representation of women in STEM starts from school and results from deep-rooted social discrimination, social norms, biases, and expectations that influence the quality of education they receive and the subjects they study. Positive parenting will help change stereotypical perceptions related to STEM subjects and inspire young girls to choose and work in this area.

According to a UNESCO report, only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally are women. However, in India, the situation isn’t so bleak. While in India, 43% of the total graduates in STEM are women, which is one of the highest in the world, only 14% become scientists, engineers, and technologists. Sources indicate that India ranks second in the world’s top 20 countries with the highest number of women Tech CEOs. However, the share of Women CEOs in Tech companies in India is only a minuscule 5%.

In the current times, the boundaries between the physical and virtual world are blurring with the advent of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing, whose future and scope are unparalleled. Without women, we will lack the dimension, the scope and the spirit to clasp these changes. Women have a special lens and a peculiar skill set to multitask, be more adaptive, be more resilient, and be more innovative, all of which are needed for scientific and technological growth.

To bridge the gap in gender inequality and improve the future of women in STEM, it will take a collective effort from teachers, industry leaders, society, government, and individuals. We need to implement robust programs to build a strong pipeline of women through early mentorship, recognition of women role models, reskilling, and engaging STEM education. Strong STEM education creates critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and next-generation innovators.

The new Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (STIP) recommends some policies aimed at educating and retaining women in STEM. These include incorporating a system of grading institutes based on women’s engagement, ensuring at least 30% of decision-makers comprise women, promoting and recognising more women scientists, and providing flexible work timings and adequate gender-neutral parental leaves.

In addition to such policy imperatives, it would be prudent to focus on a few further measures such as the mandatory representation of women in Boards, massive rollout of women-centric mentoring programs, flexible or remote work setups, and providing childcare and after-school support. Such measures will ease women into their work setup and redefine the culture in STEM. Also, companies should recruit more women to create diversity in the workplace.

The government may also consider investing more in colleges specifically for women engineers so those young and bright women can start early on through internships and apprentices. Each state, particularly in rural areas, must encourage girl science students through paid internships or monthly stipends. Reinforcing academia and industry linkages will encourage young women in STEM through networking, mentorship, and skill building.

We must also create an institutional mechanism for creating adequate and organised data on women in STEM and compiling and analysing the same regularly.

Recognition of women in STEM is also a key goal of the CII National Technology, Innovation, and Research Mission. CII has recently released a Compendium of Women in STEM: Vanguards of India@75 featuring success stories and achievements of 125 women luminaries, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others who have made a significant mark in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, which the Principal Scientific Advisor released to the Government of India.

For a better tomorrow, we need to empower women in STEM, as it helps women pursue their dreams, and science, businesses, society and therefore, nations would gain immensely from their equal representation.

The article has been co-authored by Mr Vipin Sondhi, Chairman, National Mission on Technology, Innovation & Research, CII and Mr Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General, CII .

It was first published in the New Indian Express, 5 August 2021.

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